Monkey Business

Monkey Business.  A classic 1931 movie from the Marx Brothers.

HarpoGroucho was the best known of the Marx Brothers, but the most intriguing brother was Harpo, who took to wearing a bright red wig on stage in the early days of the four brothers’ act.  He took on the part of a mime, never speaking in his movie roles, appearing here in the role of Sir Isaac Newton in The Story of Mankind.

SiegelThe year of the film was 1957, marking the final appearance of the four brothers on film, and the year before Ralph Mitchell Siegel was born.  I never had the privilege of meeting Ralph, but I had heard of him through the years.  Like Harpo, he was known to many by his signature red hair, though Ralph’s was not a wig.  It was as real as the signature red hair of a good friend and optometric colleague, Dr. Stuart Rothman, who was a neighbor and close friend of Ralph’s in West Orange, NJ before Ralph’s untimely passing in 2011 at the age of 52.


Stu emailed the other day to relate that my comment citing Siegel at the end of a blog post triggered a highlight of Ralph’s career that I had forgotten.  In a seminal article in The New Yorker magazine, Stereo Sue, Oliver Sacks describes that in February of 2005, the writer, along with ophthalmologist Bob Wasserman and vision physiologist Ralph Siegel, visited Sue at her home in Massachusetts, to measure her vision. They tested Sue and she was able to see depth in various forms.  The rest of Sue’s story needs no introduction, but it’s always a treat to hear Oliver Sacks tell it, including his relating the trip with Wasserman and Siegel.

Another-Day-in-the-Monkey-s-Brain-Siegel-Ralph-9780199734344Oliver Sacks was instrumental in getting Ralph’s book, Another Day in the Monkey’s Brain into print, a posthumous tribute to his career.  Oliver wrote the introduction to this short but fast-paced volume, contained in a preview which you can read here.  Beyond the delightful introduction, through which you’ll get a glimpse of Ralph on a personal level, this short book scintillates with Siegel’s intellect.  I particularly enjoyed his description of meetings with Francis Crick at the Salk Institute in LaJolla.  In 1982, Crick formed the Helmholtz Club together with Ramachandran and Shaw, inviting researchers to the Salk for extended discussions about various topics in vision and systems neuroscience.  Siegel spent many summers at the Salk, and was clearly influenced by Crick’s interests in consciousness.

Brain imaging has led to the notion of cortical cartography, with areas of the brain dedicated to specific sensory and motor functions.  Chapter 9 is Siegel’s critique of pure cortical topography, and it is fertile with clinical possibilities.  Here is a snippet (pp. 68-9):
“The type of static and fixed mapping that occurs in V1 has historically been thought to underpin cortical processing … More recent studies expand this mapping idea into a plethora of visual cortical areas, each with a line carrying a set of visual characteristics.  The most serious implication of the idea that the basis for cortical processing is a rapidly changing and adapting cortical area rather than a fixed cortical representation is that ‘labeled’ lines do not simply lose their label, their identity; they do not survive at all.”
Siegel goes on to claim that the vast regions of our striate cortex  must therefore use some form of combinatorics, a process of continual self-organization based on preceding and following areas, or what has been called upstream or downstream signals.  Here’s a nice video example of what combinatorial coding and multiple binding looks at the cellular level involving T-cells:
cortical twist
This is what combinatorics might look like in the visual cortex (figure from Keil and Wolf).  In the dimension reduction framework, the visual cortex is modeled on the left as a two-dimensional sheet that twists in a higher-dimensional stimulus or feature space to cover it as uniformly as possible while minimizing some measure of continuity. In this way, it represents a mapping from the cortical surface to a variety of visual stimulus features such as orientation and retinotopy, as noted on the right.
Oliver Sacks and Professor Ralph Siegel
I can only imagine the conversations that my friend Stu Rothman must have had with his friend Ralph Siegel about visual cortical plasticity, and the ability of optometric vision therapy to influence brain mediated function. And I would have loved to have been a fly in the back seat of the car when Ralph Siegel drove home with Sacks and Wasserman from Massachusetts, where Sue Barry and her optometrist, Theresa Ruggiero, turned conventional wisdom about visual physiology on its ear.  Here are several video clips of Oliver Sacks in tribute to Ralph Siegel.

One thought on “Monkey Business

  1. Len,
    I note that the latest referrals from the local schools have a line item for sight and a line item for vision. Seems like you are getting a response and that they understand we see with our eyes and our brains. Soon all will know to see an eyemd for surgery and an eyeod for vision problems.
    I am also getting referrals from parents, teachers and others with questions on vision problems. Too bad you are not closer to Kalamazoo, Michigan. I will do the best I can for the kids. August

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